I was a student when my undergraduate university purchased its first LMS. While it took several semesters for anyone to really begin using it, I managed to enroll into the first fully-online class offered to residential students (and the second, and the third – in a hybrid variant). Over 15 years later, I completed a Master’s degree entirely online. Something about my experience as an early online student sent me down an interesting career path. I joined Blackboard after completing my undergraduate degree, just after it had started taking off. It was a great place to learn a lot and to meet great people. I lived through the acquisitions of WebCT and ANGEL and Moodlerooms. As a student, I’ve taken courses in each of these LMSs. I’ve also built course materials for many of them, too. In the early 2000s for a class project, I even built a mobile app to pull my grades out of ANGEL (I suspect this is what may have landed me that job at Blackboard). One of my first jobs at Blackboard was traveling around from school to school integrating SISs with LMSs so that when a student enrolled into a class, he or she showed up in the corresponding LMS class roster. Then I focused on building learning apps on top of LMSs and integrating third-party apps and content. The better part of a decade later I left Blackboard to take a job at a university that involved migrating over 100,000 users from a homegrown LMS onto D2L’s Brightspace. They also used Canvas for continuing education classes.
It is no surprise to me that Client Stat’s most recent LMS data update shows more schools using LMSs than ever before. The technology has become pervasive and thoroughly entrenched…though paradoxically almost universally loathed. Around 2007-2008, some started to predict the death of the LMS. Others lament that just about every promising new learning tool invented, given enough time, begins to resemble a LMS. Some have attempted to explain why LMSs are so terrible while still others have been trying for years to reinvent the concept, to invert it, to unbundle it, or to offer an alternative to the LMS paradigm moving forward.
Nevertheless, here we are – in 2017 – with Learning Management Systems that very closely resemble what LMSs looked like 20+ years ago when the product category was invented. I’ll admit that for having invested so much time in the technology myself, the progress I’ve seen has been disappointing. Sometimes I think our desire to explain what’s wrong with LMSs clouds what has given them such staying power. While this is not a post in support of LMSs, I do hope that by acknowledging what they do well, we’ll be able to better focus on improving upon, evolving, or maybe even replacing the concept.
The single largest factor for the success of LMSs is that they are the default option. Every school has one. For many schools, courses and enrollments are auto-populated, almost magically, at the start of each semester. LMSs log in with the same password used for every other campus system, and new user accounts are set up automatically. There is usually training and support available for the LMS. Security of the system, backing it up each night, and bringing it back up if it goes down is IT’s problem. Some schools even pre-populate the final grade from the LMS back into the SIS eliminating even more manual work for each instructor. Many instructors have spent many semesters perfecting their LMS course content to be “just so.” And when the semester is over, this content is rolled over and copied into the next semester (even the assignment due dates get updated) – again, for many schools with a click of a button. LMSs possess great organizational inertia, and for the ways that many people use LMSs today, it would simply be more work to choose to do otherwise.
Students today have demanding expectations driven by consumer technologies that have high levels of usability, versatility, and user-friendliness. They expect the same of their digital campus experience. The LMS – behind e-mail – is the campus system a student is most likely to use each day. Because of this, it tends to define the student’s digital experience while in college, and despite the many complaints people have about LMSs, they still do a good enough job serving in this capacity such that nothing else has yet replaced them.
A central LMS provides one place to log in to see everything that a student or instructor needs to do in a week – specifically a single view into all notifications/alerts, grades, and assignments. One missed item, especially one that puts the student behind or impacts a grade, could cause a student to lose faith entirely with any additional, external, or disjointed learning system no matter what its benefit. This is especially the case for adult learners who have full-time jobs and families and want to focus on learning during their nights and weekends instead of navigating across disparate systems. It is also true for instructors who as a whole tend to value a consistent, known experience over the novelty of trying out alternative platforms. Instructors who choose to use something outside of the LMS often face backlash from students – unless that external site or tool is connected to through the LMS to provide a central jumping-off point, much in the same way your mobile phone is the jumping off point into a wide variety of apps. And asking students to purchase and carry both an Android phone and an Apple iPhone to get the best out of both choices sounds kind of like a ridiculous idea, doesn’t it? (Not so ridiculous is to choose to use an app that exists for both phone platforms even though the experience may differ on each.)
Over the course of many years, every school has refined and perfected the connections LMSs have into a wide variety of other campus systems including authentication systems, identity management systems, student information systems, assessment-related learning tools, library systems, digital textbook systems, and other content repositories. APIs and standards have decreased the complexity of supporting these connections, and over time it has become easier and more common to connect LMSs to – in some cases – several dozen or more other systems. This level of integration gives LMSs much more utility than they have out of the box – and also more “stickiness” that causes them to become harder to move away from. For LMS alternatives, achieving this same level of connectedness, particularly considering how brittle these connections can sometimes become over time, is a very difficult thing to achieve.
In other words, it’s the same reason why individuals rarely switch bank accounts. Once your paycheck direct deposit and auto-bill-pay are configured, and you become familiar with which local ATMs don’t incur an additional service charge – switching banks becomes an increasingly less likely activity.
Whether instructors realize it or not – or agree with it or not – there are a wide array of laws and regulations with which they should comply. Copyright and FERPA are two of the biggest ones. LMSs limit the visibility of copyrighted course content to only course participants for the duration that they need it. (Of course, this would become a moot point if using openly licensed OERs.) In the context of FERPA, LMSs ensure that only a given student can see his or her grades, and some LMSs have the ability for system administrators to configure which student data is shared outside the LMS with other systems such as digital courseware and e-textbooks. LMSs (for example D2L, Blackboard, Instructure, and Moodle) offer tremendous support for improving accessibility of course materials to comply with accessibility laws, sometimes offering tools that allow instructors to automatically check their course content to make sure those students with sight and hearing disabilities can use it effectively. There are various regional and institutional rules and policies that LMSs help to support as well. For example, some states require instructors to provide details about required course materials ahead of the class start date to improve textbook affordability by giving students more time to shop around.
Compliance is not always the friendliest word to throw around, but LMSs do provide some structure to help in this regard (and also the ability to shift some of the associated risk from the institution to a vendor).
There’s a whole bunch of other useful things that LMSs do, too, but they don’t get used frequently enough for me to believe that these items contribute as significantly to their staying power as the factors above. Similarly there’s a whole bunch of great things that non-LMSs can do even though they haven’t gained much traction because they lack more than one of the factors above. At various times in my career I’ve waffled in my enthusiasm about LMSs. Over time, I’ve taken a more pragmatic than aspirational stance.
Overthinking Technology’s Role
There are benefits to using LMSs, and there are trade-offs. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we are overthinking technology’s role in the delivery of online educational experiences. I am a believer that success can come not only from which technology we choose to use, but also how we most effectively use the technology we have. Even great demos of the newest educational technology solutions leave me skeptical that they are too complex or promise too much. Could different co-teaching and collaborative course approaches or more modern pedagogical practices move the needle more than the latest LMS features? Are there other non-technical solutions such as using course coaches or student advising teams that would stand a better chance of sustainable success? Probably, but even so the LMS would likely still be a core component of the strategy.
Prepare for an Inflection Point
The homogeneity of most LMSs and continued consolidation of the product marketplace is evidence that the technology has reached a stable, dominant design. Typically when this happens in a product category, a new wave of innovation characterized by different ways to address the same need (and additionally new and unknown ones) emerges driven by commoditization and downward price pressure from vendors offering the previous generation of competing solutions. This does not appear to be happening with LMSs, in my opinion largely because of the way they are procured.
Will there soon be a tipping point for LMSs? Maybe- but it will be driven by courageous choices made by individual institutions – likely driven by forward-thinking instructors who want to do things differently across a whole department or institution (i.e.: not just for their own class). To those instructors and institutions – you will know when an opportune moment surfaces to do so when your existing LMS becomes so woefully outdated that it needs to be wholly replaced, or a group of faculty pursue a unified effort to teach differently (such as by using mobile devices or an OER-based curriculum or a competency-based one), or when some widespread glitch or deficiency with your current LMS causes enough pain for everyone to trigger a re-evaluation. Instructors, you can start to prepare now by thinking about how you can segment your course content from the LMS so that it withstands any migration intact.
Educational experiences are not transactional; they are transformational. And I still see great instructors succeeding despite the flaws inherent in LMSs. This said, they’re the best general use educational technology solution we have for now – and likely to be for some time. But always remember – there is no one right way to use a LMS. Use them for what they are good for but not for what they aren’t. Hopefully with more information about what gives LMSs their staying power, we can begin to focus on those areas that still need some work with greater chances of future success.
This is a guest post authored by George Kroner